From the first year to qualification! Advice from a NQN

#HelloMyNameIs Beth Phillips, and I am a Community Children’s Nurse. I also happen to be fortunate enough to have studied children’s nursing at Surrey as part of the September 2016 cohort, qualifying almost 18 months ago.

To be asked to write this blog post felt very special, as I alongside fellow students Ellie and Maddie, and later Tia, set this blog up during my third year at University. When we started curating it in November 2018, I didn’t expect it to still be running nearly 2.5 years later and that truly is a credit to the wonderful ladies who have taken it under their wings, and of course all of those staff and students who have written blog posts over that period. I still very much enjoy reading and learning from the experiences of others.

So how has my nursing journey gone so far? After I finished my supervised practice placement in September 2019, I moved back home to Northern Ireland and started my first job as a staff nurse at a children’s hospital. I had always planned to move back home after I qualified, but after three years training in the same Trust, knowing the wards and hospital inside out, the staff, even the paperwork, it was a huge learning curve starting totally afresh in somewhere unknown. Going from being an “expert” student to a “novice” nurse is not to be underestimated. It is an incredibly exciting transition and absolutely to be celebrated that you’ve made it through three years of University to get to this point but it’s totally ok to feel overwhelmed too. I was really lucky that I started my NQ role at the same time as five other NQ nurses on the ward – one of whom also trained at Surrey – and we all carried each other through and figured it out together. I realised that being a student nurse is like learning to ride a bike with your stabilisers on, and qualifying is when those stabilisers come off. So you’re pretty wobbly at first, and sometimes you fall off spectacularly, but you keep getting back on the bike and eventually you do stop wobbling so much!

I worked on a medical ward specialising in respiratory, gastroenterology and metabolic/endocrine, so every single day was different. The really great thing about working in a specialist children’s setting is the vast array of different, sometimes very complex conditions that you are exposed to. I was really grateful for my general ward placements as a student giving me a solid base of knowledge, and this was then further enriched as a staff nurse in a specialist setting. That first winter was extremely busy, as winter normally is in paediatrics, and wow did I learn a lot very quickly!

By early spring I was feeling pretty settled in my role, still learning lots, and then of course we all know what came along next – COVID-19. I think it is safe to say that when my cohort all parted ways from Guildford in September 2019, we did not expect to be navigating our newly qualified year during a pandemic! By April I had received a letter identifying me as clinically extremely vulnerable due to underlying health issues, and suddenly I had to stop working and shield at home. There was a lot of guilt there knowing many of my colleagues and former cohort were redeployed to adult ICU and bravely out of their depths fighting against the pandemic, some amazing human beings many of whom I know are currently redeployed again during this current surge (thank-you!). However, being so early on in my career I knew it was so important to protect my health to keep being able to contribute for many decades to come, so I spent four months shielding and then returned to the ward in August.

That time at home led me to a bit of an epiphany. I had always been drawn to community nursing, even as a student nurse. I had, and still have, a huge passion for nursing children with complex needs and life limiting conditions and building relationships with them in their home environments. As a final year student, I think that there is a pressure and expectation – not from University, but in general, for NQNs to go into acute nursing and do their time on the wards. “Consolidate your knowledge” seems to be the go-to justification for this. Despite this pull to community nursing, I went into acute nursing with this advice in mind. Returning from shielding, still a very junior nurse almost starting afresh after a long absence, I struggled to settle back in. I knew it was not the right area for me as a nurse. That led me to apply for a position as a Community Children’s Nurse. I was very lucky to be offered the job, and I started in November 2020. It has been the best decision I have ever made. Being a CCN is a hugely diverse role and I learn something new every day, becoming more and more autonomous and managing my own caseload of children. I hope to eventually do my SPQ in Community Children’s Nursing and further study – the opportunities for progression are very exciting.

So what would my advice be to current students at Surrey? Firstly, embrace every second of being a student nurse. It is SO hard at times, I still remember it well, but take every opportunity you can to learn and absorb knowledge. Enjoy the time you have to spend with children and their families. Use your wonderful teaching fellows for their vast knowledge and experience, and also their kindness and support. When it comes to applying for your newly qualified positions, listen to your gut and where you know your strengths and passion lies. If you want to go into community straight away – do it! But remember that your first job is not the be all and end all, and if you don’t like it, you can move on whenever you want – you aren’t stuck there forever.

And finally, especially to the third years currently facing another opt-in extended placement to help out as part of the efforts against COVID-19 – thank-you. I know this is not the final year you planned or deserve – but your sacrifices and bravery are appreciated by us all. How lucky we will be to have you all joining us as Registered Nurses later this year.

Author – Beth Phillips, Community Children’s Nurse, former 09/16 cohort

Disclaimer: This blog contains personal opinions of students and teaching fellows only and does not necessarily represent the views of the Children’s Nursing team, School of Health Sciences or the University of Surrey.

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